by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 5, 2001 — There hasn’t been much to laugh about lately at Amazon.com. A year after “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” expanded to sell everything from electronics and housewares to patio furniture and automobiles, a January 30th press release announced the company’s fourth quarter losses totaled $545 million, making its net loss for the year a staggering $1.41 billion.

The release also announced the company’s biggest layoff ever -- 1,300 employees, including 400 people from its famous customer service center in Seattle. Days later, a leaked e–mail from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that promised to “get the crap out” of Amazon’s product line led critics to ask why Bezos had added products he considered “crap” in the first place.

Then laid–off employees complained to the press that, to get Amazon’s generous ten–week severance package, they had to sign a non–disparagement agreement, and a “separation agreement” promising not to sue the company for any form of discrimination in their dismissal. Amazon soon buckled and withdrew the non–disparagement agreement, but not the separation agreement, and a group of fifty non–laid–off employees walked off the job in solidarity with their former colleagues.

Meanwhile, Amazon announced a reorganization of its European operations, including the closing of more customer service centers.

Then some Amazon news actually generated laughs, albeit at the company’s expense — a former employee, 28–year–old Mike Daisey, snuck into Amazon’s Seattle headquarters with a video camera and shot a funny, mock documentary called “Rear Entry,” which he posted on the Internet.

With a style somewhere between “60 Minutes” and Michael Moore, Daisey used his old Amazon i.d. to get past security and roam the building with cameraman John Tyne. The resultant video is only four minutes long, but includes Daisey encountering a roaming dog; finding business cards from Merrill Lynch and charts about “data mining” (the selling of customer information) strewn about; taking a (presumably fake) customer service call about Harry Potter and giving an obscene response; and examining what must be one of Jeff Bezo’s odder possessions — the skeleton of a prehistoric bear, on display in the lobby of the building and complete, as Daisey informs us, with a “'twelve inch penis bone.”

But even the sophomoric hijinks have a bite — Daisey points out the bear cost Bezos a fortune, and throughout the film shows "cube farms" (vast rooms partitioned into hundreds of cubicles) that are eerily vacant.

Daisey posted the video on his brand-new web site, www.mikedaisey.com, where he also runs bulletin boards for disgruntled Amazonians, and updates the laid–off about ongoing severance disputes.

When reached at his Seattle home, he was at first somewhat distracted by the fact that during the night his Web site had mysteriously disappeared from its host server. He’d lost message boards from laid-off Amazonians, but used backups to get “Rear Entry” and the rest of the site back up.

DJ: What happened?

MD: Well, I’m not making any assumptions. All I’m saying is that we lost the site. This morning when we got in touch with the hosting company they said the account is just deleted. They have no idea how that happened. So . . .

DJ: You’ve been getting a lot of attention?

MD: Uh, the movie has been downloaded about 24,000 times over the last five days. And I’ve been getting three or four e–mails an hour, so I’ve gotten hundreds of testimonials. We’re gonna put those up on the site once we’re finished getting people’s permission to do so.

DJ: What inspired you to put your Web site up in the first place?

MD: The Web site went up to promote a stage show I’m doing called “Twenty One Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com.” It’s a one-man show about my experiences inside Amazon. It’s really almost an anthropological expedition into, you know, how does Amazon create the mindset among its workers that allows them to get so much work out of them — what’s going on that makes people so dedicated to it?

DJ: What did you do when you worked there?

MD: I started in customer service, and then I moved over to business development. I worked with the associates program — where Amazon forges links with other Web sites so that you can link through to Amazon, and people can purchase things.

DJ: Why did you leave?

MD: Layoffs had just happened, in January of last year. They weren’t as large, of course, as the recent layoffs, but it made me reassess where the company was going. I thought that they got rid of some of their best people, and I realized that I couldn’t stay there anymore.

DJ: Had you liked the job until that point?

MD: Oh, I loved the job. I missed it terribly when I left. It was one of the hardest decisions Iˆve ever made, believe me.

DJ: So what do you think is behind Amazon’s current troubles?

MD: Well, there’s greed. Uh, hubris — hubris is a big one. Lot of hubris built into Amazon. I certainly bought into it, too. We really thought that we would change the entire consumer process, that people, you know, would have access to this limitless database, and so everyone would be reading cool books and seeing great movies and we would be able to transform things on a fundamental level. And I think that as we shifted from being “earth’s biggest bookstore” to “earth’s best customer service” to “earth’s greatest selection,” just like the progression of mottoes shifted, the emphasis shifted to “we have a lot of stuff,” not just a lot of books, but lawnmowers and blenders — “crap,” according to Jeff Bezos! I mean, somewhere along the way the human element of the company started getting lost. And those layoffs on last Tuesday were really the end, I think. They’re not laying off executives, they’re customer service people, like I was. I mean, these are people that during Christmas would work 60 and 70 hours a week, people who have repetitive stress injuries now, people who believed in this dream so much that even when the stock dropped, you know, they still had this enormous pride in the size and scale of this company that they built. There’s a really tragic element to it all, that the people at the core are really good people who can’t believe what they’ve built, and can’t believe that they’ve been excluded from it at this point, after everything that they did. It’s pretty miserable.

DJ: How much of this do you attribute to Jeff Bezos?

MD: Nearly a hundred percent. Amazon, at its core, is a cult of personality. It’s really a larger reflection of one man’s vision. That’s part of what makes it so seductive and so powerful.

DJ: Has anything filtered back to you about his reaction to “Rear Entry”?

MD: Not yet, although most people I know that know him, you know, better than I do — we were just in a couple of meetings together — suggest there's a decent to middling chance he’ll come see the show.

DJ: Does that make you nervous?

MD: Well, it makes me uncomfortable, yeah. I don’t think he should come. I don’t think he’d be very comfortable there, and I don’t think that the people watching it, a lot of whom will be people he’s laid off, will be very happy if he’s there.

DJ: What prompted you to make “Rear Entry,” and how did you go about doing it?

MD: We decided we’d go back to Amazon and sort of do a faux–60 Minutes kind of, uh, expose. So we just sort of went in and shot film for about an hour, just shot and ran from area to area until we had everything we could.

DJ: It looked like the place was virtually empty. What time of day was it?

MD: Around 1:30 on a Friday afternoon.

DJ: And nobody was working?

MD: They should be, but they’re not. I don’t know what the deal is. But I used to work in that building, and it was always kind of like that.

DJ: What is that building? Is it company headquarters?

MD: Yeah, that’s actually the Fortress of Solitude, which is what a lot of employees call it. If you’re ever here it's this big, Gothic, Art Deco building that has been bought, I think, to specifically intimidate (laughs) the city. It’s visible from wherever you are in Seattle. It just kind of lurks over the city.

DJ: Was it empty because of the layoffs?

MD: No, we went in on January 19th, before the latest round of layoffs. It has always seemed empty, which is very strange, because when I was there we were always having space problems.

DJ: So whose dog is that, in the movie when you first go in the building?

MD: I don’t know whose dog that was.

DJ: That dog was just running around?

MD: Yeah. Amazon’s corporate culture has a thing about dogs. Like, one of the big perks of working at Amazon is you can bring your dog to work. It’s actually not that big a perk. Everybody’s dogs then wander up and down the hallways. You just, like, will see an empty hallway and a dog. It happens all the time.

DJ: Were you worried that Amazon would file charges against you for “breaking in,” as you put it?

MD: Well, I wasn't really that worried. I just kind of accepted that as a possible consequence. But I kind of figured it would be a bad idea for them to do that.

DJ: And by doing the show, or making the movie, are you in violation of a non–disclosure or non–disparagement agreement?

MD: No, I don’t have the non–disparagement, I have a non–disclosure agreement, and it expires the day before the show opens.

DJ: So what’s next?

MD: I’ll tell you something, which, I haven’t told anyone this yet — I’m going to start working on a book. Everything that’s in the show and more. I think it’s valuable beyond just Amazon — it has such an impact in so many areas,. So many people who worked there gave such a huge investment in idealism to the company and feel betrayed by it. So I’m charting what happens to the people who sign on at the beginning for one thing and find that they’ve actually been given a ticket for something entirely different.

DJ: So you're going to write a book about “earth’s biggest bookseller”?

MD: Well, I think it’s important to note that back when I started there, Amazon was this funky independent bookseller. A lot of us who started working there at the beginning, had, you know, advanced degrees — I have a degree in aesthetics, of all things — and we were over–educated and one of the reasons we worked there was because we really loved talking to people about books.

DJ: And beyond the book?

MD: My plan is to help support the workers as they get laid off over the next three months. We’re doing interviews with as many as we can, which we’ll put up on the site to sort of document what this culture was like. It’s really vanishing. All these people with purple hair and nose rings who work with the customers, who are really the core of how it all started, are all not gonna have jobs.



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